The Real Issue Isn't a Shield in Central Europe

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In the two weeks since he was elected president, Barack Obama has received conflicting signals from Moscow. Aside from a threat to deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, the Kremlin has made some conciliatory statements. Whether we see a new chapter in U.S.-Russian relations will become clear only after Obama and his foreign policy team are firmly in place after January. Nonetheless, we can still identify the key points that will determine the nature of the relationship.

The two main irritants in relations are NATO expansion and plans to install elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Following the war in the Caucasus, NATO may have less enthusiasm for offering Membership Action Plans for Ukraine and Georgia, but the missile-defense issue will become either the main obstacle to bilateral relations or the key opportunity for improving them.

Since the missile-defense program was first proposed, it has caused a great deal of frustration for both sides. At a U.S.-Russia summit in Sochi in April, then-President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a declaration on a strategic framework for relations between the two countries. After the summit, the Kremlin concluded that the next U.S. president would make the final decision about whether the United States would go forward with its missile-defense system in Central Europe. In other words, Moscow thought Bush would not force the issue before he left office.

As we later learned, however, the White House decided it would be better to sign an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic during the Bush's last remaining months in office to make this project a part of his legacy. This enraged Moscow, which felt it had been deceived.

Apart from the emotional aspect, the missile-defense issue also contains some conceptual contradictions. The problem of a defense shield is global in nature and therefore requires a coordinated solution from all leading countries. But the United States has acted unilaterally on this issue.

Bush justified the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty it signed with the Soviet Union in 1972 by explaining that Washington needed "freedom and flexibility" in order to defend itself. The plan to deploy elements of a missile-defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland was also a unilateral decision rather than the result of consultations with its allies or an international recognition of a missile threat from Iran. The White House simply informed Europe that it needed protection, and NATO allies gave their consent to the project much later at the April summit in Bucharest.

The United States continues to argue that the deployment of a radar facility in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland is incapable of undermining the effectiveness of Russia's nuclear potential. This is true. But in presenting the subject in these narrow terms, Washington is diverting attention from the much larger issue.

The missile-defense elements planned for Poland and the Czech Republic are the third phase of what is most likely a broader U.S. strategy to build a universal missile-defense shield that covers the entire globe. After the third phase we could see the United States building a fourth, fifth and sixth phase. The only reason why Washington would push so hard for the third phase in Central Europe -- which on its own is of questionable use -- would be if that project were a stepping stone toward something much larger and strategically significant: that is, if we are talking about the construction of a global missile-defense system that could protect the United States from any threat from any corner of the world. There are serious doubts that this is technologically possible, but this could change in the future. And if it does, the strategic balance in the world would shift dramatically because it would remove the basic principle that has ensured stability in the past -- the threat of mutually assured destruction.

Since the Cold War is behind us, the harsh measures required to ensure security in the 1970s are no longer needed. But the missile-defense system could only increase global stability and security if all of the major powers participate in making a common security shield. If, however, Russia or China is excluded, this would clearly tip the security balance in favor of the United States.

To resolve the missile-defense problem, negotiations must be held in a global, multilateral context. According to Washington's arguments, the Central European missile-defense program is tied to another urgent international problem -- Iran's nuclear-missile program. But those issues are closely intertwined and should be discussed together, along with the larger issue of nuclear nonproliferation.

Without a mutually satisfactory decision on missile defense, it would be difficult to expect bilateral cooperation on weapons control. Russia has repeatedly called on the Bush administration to return to the previous agenda of arms reductions. But if Washington tries to create a universal missile-defense shield on its own, it would necessarily bury any chances or reaching a bilateral agreement on disarmament. By agreeing to reduce its own arsenal, Moscow would be effectively helping the United States build a impenetrable missile-defense shield. After all, the U.S. ability to intercept incoming missiles depends to a large degree on how many are launched by the opposing side. The fewer missiles that Russia has in its arsenal, the fewer interceptors and radar facilities the United States would have to install across the globe to achieve superiority.

Resolving the missile-defense problem would not only improve U.S.-Russian relations but could become a key to untangling a whole knot of other disagreements. There is a chance that after Jan. 20 Moscow will have partners in Washington who are much more willing to solve these problems. After all, Democrats have always shown less interest in "Star Wars" programs than the Republicans. In addition, the new administration will be under increased pressure to cut costs, and both the White House and Congress will have no choice but to set priorities for U.S. defense expenditures.

The unilateral decision in 2001 by the Bush administration to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty was a turning point in international relations. In general, U.S. unilateralism has been destructive to both the United States and the world. Therefore, if Obama's pledge to incorporate multilaterism into U.S. foreign policy begins with developing a global missile-defense system in close cooperation with other countries, this will be a very constructive step toward building a new multipolar model for global affairs.

If I could give the Kremlin one piece of advice, I would urge them to not destroy this promising opportunity with the new U.S. administration by resorting to inflammatory rhetoric. This only puts the United States in a position where compromise would be perceived as weakness.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.